From Gruel to Grouse

The Dining Habits of 19th Century Europeans.

The 19th Century was regarded as the Golden Age of European gastronomy. It was a time when urbanisation, and the Industrial Revolution, was changing the face of the Earth. The inventions that sprung up during this time had a huge impact for the culinary world. But what did this mean for the average citizen?

In the 19th Century, factories sprung up across Europe, pasteurisation was discovered, and canning techniques were developed, meaning food could be packed and preserved for far longer than before, and production costs trended ever cheaper.

And yet, despite having more options than ever, diet varied dramatically according to what class you belonged in.

The upper classes enjoyed a panoply of dishes, often featuring ingredients from far afield thanks to the burgeoning trade industry. Game meat, like grouse, pigeon and deer, was often on the menu, as well as rich and complicated sweets. The upper-class penchant for fancy food marked one of the most notable times since the Stone Age that humans hunted species to extinction and near-extinction, notably, the green turtle and the passenger pigeon.

High-income worker classes enjoyed meat once a day, alongside small delicacies and treats like cheese and bacon.

Herring, toast and eggs provided a fine start to a demanding workday, especially for those in industry. Further down the ladder, low-wage workers were lucky to get meat more than twice a week, and poor families rarely saw any at all. A common breakfast might consist of no more than bread soaking in dripping (leftover fat), and dinner was likely eels or gruel, taken in shared bowls from street vendors. Owning a full set of cutlery, for the lower classes, was a rarity.

The upper classes, on the other hand, had complex table etiquette and multiple pieces of cutlery and crockery per person. They also rarely prepared meals themselves, instead employing a host of servants to do so. This is, after all, the era in which multi-course meals really flourished.

According to historical sources, the English Queen Victoria had up to seven courses every mealtime.

Afternoon tea was reserved for the rich, and consisted of delicate, weak tea paired with sandwiches or scones. It was primarily a British institution, but it did make its way to continental Europe as well. But the real big occasion, across all echelons of society, was the Sunday lunch. This was a feast as grand as each household could make it, and was often the only time when the lower classes would get the chance to have meat.

RECIPE SUGGESTION - SERVES 4 PEOPLE

Mock Turtle Soup

from The Cook’s Guide by Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria

An Excellent recipe to recreate the taste of turtle soup, when the elusive Green Turtle cannot be obtained.

You will need:

  • A calf’s head
  • A knuckle of veal
  • A pound of raw ham
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 onions
  • Celery
  • Basil
  • Marjoram
  • Lemon thyme
  • Common thyme
  • Parsley
  • Winter savory
  • Spring onions
  • 2 blades of mace
  • A quart of stock
  • Eggs
  • Butter
  • Nutmeg
  • Madeira

First, bone and then parboil the calf’s head in water, along with a small handful of salt, for 20 minutes. Steep the calf’s head in cold water to cool it down, then trim away all rough parts. Place the prepared calf’s head in a stewpan along with the veal and the ham. Add all of the vegetables and seasoning herbs, and the quart of stock, and boil until liquid is reduced to a glaze. Add stock and water again, and repeat the process until the calf’s head is thoroughly boiled. Remove the head, wash and drain it, and set aside to cool. Remove the vegetables and other meats, and set aside.

Attend the stock remaining in the pot, skimming the grease from the surface, then clarifying the stock with whipped egg whites from 3 eggs. Simmer for 20 minutes, then strain through a napkin or muslin.

Cube the calf’s head and recombine with the stock. Pound the veal and ham, and combine with egg yolk, butter and nutmeg to form quenelles, then add these to the soup. Reintroduce the vegetables and add some madeira. Boil until done.